Friday, May 16, 2008

The Command-and-Control GOP

Hilzoy references this Mark Schmitt post from three years agao.
"A command-control system like the White House-led Republican congressional system can be absolutely formidable for a certain period of time. But when it breaks down, it breaks down completely. The collapse is sudden, and total. Signals get crossed, backs get stabbed, the suddenly leaderless pawns in the system start acting for themselves, with no system or structure to coordinate their individual impulses.

Is this happening? I don't know, but it's getting close. I thought I'd seen it before, but each time they've pulled it back together. This time, I think there's too much happening at once.

The irony of all this for conservatives is that if they actually read Hayek and got anything out of it other than "government sucks," they would know this. Hayek's libertarianism was very pragmatic. Centrally controlled systems are flawed above all because they have no mechanism to correct their own errors, unlike distributed, self-organized systems. The Democrats in the Clinton years always operated in chaos, no one followed the party line, and there was a cost to that, but in the chaos and improvisation they found ways to get out of the holes that they had dug for themselves. The Rove/DeLay/Frist system doesn't have any means for correcting its mistakes -- look at the blank, lost looks on the faces of Senators Lugar and Chafee yesterday when they just had no idea what to do with a nomination that had fallen apart and couldn't fulfill their promises.

The Republicans accomplished unimaginable feats through the centralization of power. Three tax cuts, a prescription drug plan that will make Americans hate government, an insane war. But if the goal was long-term power, it is a strategy they will come to regret, if not today, someday."
Leaving out the obligatory policy-bitching, this is dead-on and the GOP proves itself stupid for not recognizing the problem.

The real issue is whether the Democrats' "chaos and improvisation" will be complex or chaotic. Chaos is chaos, just like Republican rigidity is rigidity. Neither works. It's only in the partially-ordered-and-yet-flexible middle ground that you can accomplish anything.

Hilzoy continues:
As far as I can tell, a lot of Republicans in Congress act as though just about any situation they encounter calls for one of three responses: starting a war, cutting regulation, and cutting taxes on the wealthy. (OK, there are a few other ideas: build a great big wall at the border, for instance. But these three seem to do most of the heavy lifting.) This is not what I'd call a flexible and nuanced ideological arsenal.

Moreover, each of these three responses has limits. There is a limit to the number of wars you can be engaged in at any given time. Presumably, no one thinks that we should pay no taxes at all; if not, then there must be some point at which cutting taxes is not the right thing to do. Likewise, very few people think we shouldn't have any regulations -- not even on food safety or nuclear power plant operators. Again, this means that there is some point beyond which most people would think that regulations should not be cut.


Conservatives need to do something drastic to turn their fortunes around. I see no indication that they are so much as thinking of anything that might do the trick. I suspect that's because they can't, and that the reason they can't is, ironically enough, that they didn't read (or understand) their Hayek. It's always best to have a tightly controlled organizational structure when you trust your leadership and are thinking only of the short term. You can get things done more quickly, and there's none of that annoying consensus-building and compromise to worry about.
From a tactical standpoint, she's absolutely right. But there's a simpler answer for why the GOP appears to be bereft of ideas.

When you come right down to it, there are really just a few knobs on the apparatus of government. There's one called "taxes". There's another called "regulation." There's one called "hawkishness." Maybe there's one called "activism," but that may just be a trim tab for the other knobs. At any point in history, there's an optimal setting for each of these knobs. Unfortunately, we can't know what the optimal setting is, so we wind up with two groups of people arguing over each knob. One wants to turn the knob down, the other up.

At this point, the Republicans have had there mitts on the knobs for quite a while and almost everybody agrees that they've turned them too far in their preferred direction. Now we'll get another group of yahoos twiddling them. No doubt they'll be just about right for a while, then they'll be wrong in the other direction. All we can hope for is a light touch.

Having said that, this election--it's gonna be a bloodbath.

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